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A Time for Forgiving
The Revival of the Clatsop Tribe
by Miriam Knight

We stood at the base of Saddle Mountain near Seaside looking up through the mist at the great boulders on the top. The aroma of burnt sage mingled with rich scents of the wet forest as Jeff Painter told the ancient story of the origins of the Clatsop people. Our small band had gathered to perform ceremony as the start of a process of reconnecting with the ancestors of this tribe for the first time in 130 years, opening a time of healing of the wounds to the soul of these people and of prayer for the healing of the earth.

To the heartbeat rhythm of the drum Jeff sang sacred ceremonial chants handed down through untold generations of Native Americans. These chants were Lakota, because there was no one left among the Clatsop who knew their own songs. In order to have the right to sing them, Jeff had to learn Lakota and receive each song, along with its history, from another singer who had the right to use it in ceremony. Twelve different tribes gave him songs in this way, since they may not be recorded or written down.

The terrible injustices that forcibly removed young children from their families led to the complete loss of the Clatsop language. The children were raised in “Christian” boarding schools and when they returned as young adults, they were unable to understand or identify with their parents and grandparents and this vital link to their culture was lost. At the same time they were callously rejected by mainstream American society, resulting in confusion, alienation and intermarriage. Coming from a culture where family and community provide both education and a support network, it is not astonishing that many took refuge in drugs and alcohol.

This was certainly Jeff Painter’s experience, and it provided the background and motivation for his total commitment to the regeneration of Native American communities and to helping others turn their lives around. In his twenties Jeff found himself in hospital, his body devastated by drug and alcohol abuse and his spirit not caring whether he lived or died. A counselor asked him whether there was anything he cared about and the only time he could think of that was good in his life was when he was in nature. He took himself back to the land and began a spiritual odyssey that took him through many religions and traditions until he finally found his place by connecting with the Clatsop part of his ancestry. Years of study with his adopted Lakota grandpa Martin and others prepared him to take on the spiritual leadership of the Clatsop tribe and to conduct the ceremonies of reconciliation and healing so needed today.

Far from being a mere cultural exercise, Jeff sees the re-creation of Native American communities as the cornerstone of the healing of the body, mind and spirit of his people. It is the foundation of the Wellness Movement, which addresses the rampant dis-eases found in the native community such as diabetes, domestic violence and fetal alcohol syndrome. A major focus of Jeff’s activities is with drug and alcohol treatment centers.

By reintroducing people to a sense of belonging to a community through native ceremonies, Jeff helps people find a way of life that is positive and responsible. Personal responsibility is the core. In the Sweat Lodge Jeff asks, “What is your darkness? What have you done or are you doing to get out of it?”

He uses the four circles of the Medicine Wheel as the model for healing and reintegration. It is analogous to the community social order at a Powwow, surrounding the warmth and light of a central bonfire. In the outer circle are the lost ones. They stand alone in the darkness and do not understand the language or know the dances. In the next circle are those who have chosen to learn. They may bump into one another, but they are learning. The third circle is called “Looking at something good.” This is where the Elders-in-training, the drummers, singers and Sundancers will be. The inner circle is called Hachoka, or center for the altar. It is the place where the Elders dance. An Elder is one who has achieved wisdom in any pursuit – the best ones at hunting, basket weaving, tanning, beading or whatever. The circles are a way of inspiring and providing recognition of heroes and good people.

There is no shame at being in the outer circles, and only encouragement and support for moving toward the center. There are always people to help find one’s own gift, but it is up to the individual to circulate, observe, find the thing that attracts him or her and find a mentor. There will always be someone a bit further on to learn from. Pretty soon he or she will find his or her own niche.

The first step on this new path is to lay down the burden of anger for the past. Jeff says the ancestors call this a Time for Forgiving. Without forgiving there is no healing. Only then can you go forward with a full heart to find your own way. Jeff Painter found his niche as a ceremonial singer. This involves not only understanding the meaning and intent behind the words of the songs, but also knowing what spirits are involved and projecting the songs with feeling and energy. It is a position of great responsibility, and in this way Jeff is embodying what he preaches: responsibility for self, for the community and for the earth.